OPINION: The Ottawa parliament, the Lindt cafe, Charlie Hebdo and so many others, too. These are all separate incidents, but they are all part of the same global phenomenon. They are expressions of a rage against history that lurks within modern Islam and is animating militant Muslims worldwide. It is a rage that has its source within the wounded soul of contemporary Islamic civilisation.
The Muslim religion and its social world have an intensely political tradition. It has always been so, going back to Mohammed’s dual role as prophet and political leader in the original Islamic community in Madina from AD622 to 632. Within a century of Mohammed’s death his small desert polity, in what is now Saudi Arabia, had become a vast transcontinental empire. And in a succession of different political frameworks (“caliphates”), the community of Mohammed’s faithful continued to live in the world on its own founding assumptions.
For 1000 years, Islamic civilisation flourished. Not only able to live in the world on its own terms, it could also set those terms to others who came within its orbit. It was to be accepted by all, lovingly or in obligatory submission. How has the world of Islam justified this to itself?
Religiously, Islam sees itself as the successor to the Abrahamic faiths of ethical, prophetic monotheism. It sees itself as completing Judaism and then Christianity: faiths of the “peoples of the book”, or genuine scripture. Completing, but also repairing and then superseding those earlier revelations, making good their limitations and deficiencies.
What deficiencies? First, those earlier revelations, so mainstream Islam holds, were incomplete. And second, in their human transmission, what God had revealed through them had been distorted and corrupted by its custodians, the rabbis and priests. Islam sees itself as complete because it sees itself, unlike Judaism and Christianity, as equipped with a fully developed social and political blueprint, a divinely prescribed plan for the organisation and political management of society.
For this reason, its mainstream scholars have long held, Islam incorporates and carries forward all that is right and good in Judaism and Christianity. And what is not good or authentic, Islam rejects; what it has rejected is simply wrong. Obsolete: relics from an earlier era of human spiritual and social evolution.
This was not just religious doctrine; these ideas informed and even defined the historical civilisation founded on Islamic faith. But this attitude or worldview could continue undisturbed only so long as it was not evidently counterfactual. So long as the worldly career of Islamic civilisation remained a success story.
And it was, for 1000 years. Islam survived the challenge of its great trans-Mediterranean civilisational rival, the world of Christendom, withstanding even the era of the Crusades. But eventually it succumbed to what we might call “post-Christian Christendom”, or Europe and the Western world.
The long crisis that the Islamic world, in the form of the Ottoman Empire or caliphate, entered was dramatically signalled at the end of the 18th century by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. During the following century, the world of Islam was overwhelmed. Its collapse and humiliation was accomplished by what we now call “modernity” — social, economic, administrative, technical, military, intellectual and cultural. It was defeated and routed by the application of modern attitudes and techniques, born of the Enlightenment and the new scientific revolution, that the European powers commanded and developed and began to deploy ever more thoroughly. And which the world of Islam lacked.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, much of the Islamic world had fallen under European colonial domination. It was dismembered and parcelled out among different Western powers — notably France, Britain, Italy and The Netherlands (also Russia).
No longer able to live in the world on their own terms according to their blueprint, the lands of Islam fell under derivatively foreign legal systems. They ceased to live, wherever they once had, under Islamic law, the Shariah.
This defeat was humiliating. The world of Islam was wounded at its core. This would have been a painful experience for any once-proud but now enfeebled civilisation. But for Islam it was more, and worse, than that. It was more and worse because of its long history of worldly success and its conviction of entitlement, an assurance vouchsafed by God, that Islam would forever be in charge.
The sudden lack of congruence or “fit” between this conviction of Islam’s civilisational primacy, with its assurance of enduring political ascendancy, and the abject condition of its lands under colonialism inflicted a deep wound within the heart of the modern Islamic world.
It posed a conundrum: if Islam alone were the completed and perfected religion of God — and if its political completeness was the basis for its long-lasting worldly success, which itself was proof of its religious superiority — then why was it now so comprehensively defeated and impotent? What had gone wrong?
The history of modern Islam has largely been the story of failed attempts to overcome this cognitive dissonance. This has taken many forms. First, religious modernism and reform. Then, fitted with an Islamic face, all of the modern age’s great new ideologies were repackaged and trialled for Muslims in Islamic terms: liberal constitutionalism, nationalism, socialism, secularism, statism and military authoritarianism. All failed to deliver what was hoped of them: a restoration of power and sovereignty and dignity.
Out of their failure came a new but old approach: a return to religion, to the belief that Islam is not the problem but the solution. That Islam has not failed the world’s Muslims but that they have failed Islam, failed to understand and live by it properly. For some, back to the Shariah. For some, even, restore the caliphate, a form of Islamic sovereignty capable of enforcing the Shariah.
This is the basis of the reaffirmation and religious resurgence of Islam during the past half-century — to restore Islam and Muslims to their rightful historical standing. Resurgent Islam, in its benign and also its more activist and militant forms, is the latest attempt to heal this deep wound. This frames the religious and historical consciousness of most believing, loyal and sensitive modern Muslims, moderates and radicals.
Though they may be only a minority, the radical Muslims, or militant Islamists, do not merely feel the pain of this wound. They also seek to act forcefully to “set things right again”, driven by a conviction that “history has taken a wrong turn”. This is the “rage against history”.
The violent restorationists of Islam’s glory may be marginal, even outsiders, to mainstream Islam. But that is no basis for mainstream Islamic society and its leadership to reject and disown them as “not us, and not our problem”.
What the jihadi militants do is done explicitly in the name of Islam. They find, and not capriciously, justification for what they choose to do within the sacred and historical traditions of Islam, within some authentic parts of that tradition at least. And they are responding to and acting on a profound sense of crisis and grievance that lies within the heart of modern Muslim historical experience.
It will simply not do to cut these violent people loose, allowing them to do as they please, by saying “what they do has nothing to do with Islam”. It has everything to do with Islam. There is no other way to explain it . What the violent militants do may have little to do with “Islam as decent, progressive people choose to understand it”. But it exists within, feeds off, and is explicable only within Islam and Islamic terms.
Those Muslims who wish to repudiate the action of the militants must assert themselves emphatically within Islam. And they must assert their control over how Islam is seen by their non-Muslim fellow citizens, over its “brand”.
Simply acting “behind closed doors”, with intra-community diplomacy, will not suffice. True, there is no way this will be solved without Muslims playing the primary role, but this is not just an internal problem. What goes on in the world of Islam today, as recent gruesome events worldwide have repeatedly shown , is everybody’s business.
An adequate Muslim response cannot rest solely on issuing fatwas and similar religious condemnations of the militants and their atrocities as an offence against Islam. What they do is an offence, and much worse, against all of us.
The Islamic community leaders must do more. They must constantly deepen their own and their community’s commitment to modern, liberal, democratic and pluralist values, principles and forms of action. And others, their fellow citizens, have the right to expect and ask this of them.
After the Lindt Cafe and the terrible events in Paris the question must be posed: “And what do we need to do now?” There are two parts to the answer.
One part has to do with Muslims. Nobody wants, or should want, to see our Muslim fellow citizens — as a group, or “picked off” as individuals on public transport or in the street — targeted, scapegoated, vilified, marginalised or isolated. We don’t, or should not, want that to happen to them for their sakes, and also for the sake of Australia. Neither the society as a whole nor any part of it stands to benefit should that kind of division, antagonism and scapegoating occur, or be condoned. So, if people want to do the hashtag “I’ll ride with you”, wave pens or proclaim “Je suis Charlie”, fine. However sentimental and inadequate, it is a nice gesture of inclusion, of human fellow feeling, a good symbolic (and also practical) affirmation of common citizenship and humanity.
But just because these paltry things may make some of us feel good should not persuade us that this is the core of the problem or its principal remedy. The second part of the answer has to do with the faith-based community of Islam.
What this means is that, if we are to try to minimise the occurrence of such episodes, we need to understand them better. To do that, the main task is not to follow the all-too simplistic approach of the “counter-terrorism” and “de-radicalisation” experts who, as social psychologists, treat the problem as basically one of individual psychology (perhaps in a “group context”).
Approaching the problem as if it might be treated in that way appeals to the politicians because it suggests or holds out the hope that some direct remedy or technical fix is available.
But ultimately, the problem here is not one of fragile, malleable — but remediable — individual psychology. It has to do with the Islamic historical tradition: with its inherent tensions, its unresolved problems, with what it finds difficult to acknowledge and resolve within itself.
Whether “legitimately” or not in the eyes of more decent folk, that is where the militant and violent activists look to, where they draw their motivation and justification.
It is from their reading (or mis-reading) and their use (or misuse) of Islam’s civilisational transcript that these monsters draw their inspiration, as well as the supposed justification for their appalling actions.
If such things happened only rarely, what we all face would be a different matter. But it is not uncommon. It is not even some sort of “groundhog day” affliction, an annual cause of occasionally returning distress.
It has become constant and recurrent: nonstop in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East such as Yemen, and beyond as with Boko Haram in Nigeria and in Somalia and Kenya, and with the mass slaughter of schoolchildren by the Taliban in Pakistan; and now, all too frequently, it is repeated closer to us, whether in a museum in Belgium, in the Ottawa parliament, in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe or in Paris.
It floods in upon us, like US basketball games or our one-day international cricket matches over the summer. You barely have the time to think about the one that has just happened than there is another one, scarcely distinguishable from its predecessor, demanding your attention. It just goes on.
Parents and communities, including community schools and educators, that have not thought this problem through adequately themselves are in no position to guide and educate their children and younger generations on how to manage this crisis within the Islamic world.
It is the problem of getting a faith community to acknowledge the equivocal and dubious, as well as the glorious and heroic, components of its own heritage.
“Treatment” at the individual level can never succeed unless this deeper, even fundamental, problem of the Islamic faith community in Australia and globally is acknowledged — by Muslims, starting with their educational and moral and political leadership, and by others, notably our nation’s “opinion-leaders” and politicians.
We should and must be welcoming and inclusive towards all our citizens as part of, and who wish to share in, our processes of democratic sociability, including (no more or less than anybody else) our fellow citizens of Islamic religious, historical, cultural and civilisational background.
No more and no less … and with no uniquely reserved “Islamophobia” card to play.
Remember: a phobia is an ungrounded and unfounded, an irrational and an obsessive attitude, a pathology. People these days alas have genuine grounds to feel apprehensive.
So, please, no more using — or putting up with — the catchcry of “Islamophobia” as a specially protected moral bludgeon to silence all serious, responsible discussion of the Islamic tradition and history.
We are all in this appalling situation together. We must think and act accordingly, our national political life and debates must reflect that fact, and our national political leaders must face the matter squarely and not be content with unhelpful banalities and misleading platitudes.
We should no longer be admonished by a responsible minister that Islam is simply “a religion of peace … and anybody who suggest otherwise is talking arrant nonsense”.
We need far better than that if we are ever to face and overcome this national challenge.
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at UNSW.
This opinion piece, published in The Australian, is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the New Mandala website hosted by the Australian National University.